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Ransomware attacks and biodiversity: A possible lesson from nature

Ransomware attacks and biodiversity: A possible lesson from nature

As I read about recent ransomware attacks on hospitals, I was reminded of a seemingly unremarkable event years ago when I was still using a computer with the Windows operating system. I was working with a medical doctor turned medical IT specialist. His preferred operating system—though not that of the hospitals he worked for—was the one on his Apple computer. When he loaded files from a flash drive onto his machine in my presence, I asked why he didn’t check for viruses first. He had a one-word answer: biodiversity.

He was, of course, using the metaphor of biodiversity to refer to the fact that the vast majority of computer viruses and malware targeted Windows systems at that time, something that is still true today. Very few threats targeted the Apple operating system, and because of its design the system was (and is) more resistant to such attacks.

Every student of biology—which naturally includes doctors and health care workers—ought to be aware of the advantages of biodiversity in natural systems. Biodiversity brings resilience to species and to entire ecosystems. Variations in members of a species make it more likely that some will survive to propagate. Variations across species that inhabit an ecosystem make it more likely that the system will survive as a coherent unit when some, but not all of a particular species die out.

Of course, computer networks are not biological systems (unless you include the human operators). But they suffer some of the same obvious vulnerabilities. When you look at the share of operating systems worldwide for all platforms there appears to be at least some diversity with two major systems, Android and Windows vying for first place.

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Do you own your own face?

Do you own your own face?

The question of whether you own your own face may not be as clear as you might think. Companies are already buying and selling information worldwide based on facial recognition technology. In January of this year I proposed that the United States adopt a constitutional amendment which would give each person ownership of his or her information including facial likenesses and any other biometric data. Now, some U.S. senators think that those gathering your likeness into their databases should have your permission first to do so.

Those senators are not alone. In September Portland, Oregon passed a sweeping ban on facial recognition technology for both government and businesses. San Francisco, Boston and Oakland have passed bans as well, but only for governmental agencies.

Those supporting such bans have cited racial and gender biases built into the algorithms controlling the technology as a central reason for the ban. Beyond this, a California legislator who led the fight to ban such technology for use in conjunction with police body cameras—including passing recordings through facial recognition software later—found out something even more disturbing. The technology which depends on a variety of algorithms is woefully inaccurate. The legislator and 25 of his colleagues were misidentified as persons listed in a law enforcement database as having criminal records.

That suggests another question: Would it be okay to deploy facial recognition technology everywhere governments and companies would like to if that technology were, say, 99.9 percent accurate?

There are those who would say, “If you aren’t doing anything wrong, then you don’t have anything to worry about.” There are three problems with this statement. First, there are so many laws—traffic laws, sanitation laws such as laws against spitting in public, seatbelt laws, ordinances about conduct in public places including parks—that all of us are bound to violate some law at some time everyday.

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Scavenger or thief: The line will continue to blur

Scavenger or thief: The line will continue to blur

The role of scavenger in nature is to find that which others have discarded or which no longer has life. Vultures are the best-known example of a species that lives off the dead carcasses of other animals. Many insects act as scavengers as well.

Human scavengers go by many names: junk removal—the junk man often reclaims things of value even as we pay him to take them away—recycling companies, and finally, those who out of economic necessity rummage through trash cans and pick out containers redeemable for a deposit that others leave behind.

In the human world, the more desperate the times, the more scavenging people are likely to do and the less stuff there will be to go around. That’s when scavenging may cross the line into theft.

I was struck by a piece on the damage being done to the South African railways as they have been poorly guarded and far less used in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. “[P]erpetrators removed windows, lights, seats, water taps, guard rails and the entire roof of the buildings…,” according to the report. Electric cable and track are being looted as well.

The writer does say that theft has gone on for years and accelerated recently due to lack of security. As a result travelers are having to find other ways to get around as the system continues to be degraded.

Unfortunately, I believe what is happening to railways in South Africa is a preview of the not-to-distant future practically everywhere. I do not believe we are done with the current economic downturn. As the economic slump renews itself, more and more people will become desperate for cash with which to buy food and pay for shelter, if they have any. They will lay their hands on anything salable that is accessible and that taking offers minimal chance of arrest or harm.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Why am I feeling so anxious? The end of modernism arrives

Why am I feeling so anxious? The end of modernism arrives

A friend of mine quipped that it is one thing to talk about the end of modernism—as the two of us have been doing for over 25 years—and quite another to live through it. It might seem that such notions are far too abstract to account for the anxiety of our fraught times. But underneath all the disorder we see in our pandemic-plagued economic, social and political lives is the crumbling of key assumptions about what we call modernity, a period of “enlightenment” that has supposedly freed us from the past.

First, let me recount what I regard as four key assumptions of modernism—I’ve written about them before—which are being demolished every day right before our eyes with the help of an invisible virus.

  1. Humans are in one category and nature is in another.
  2. Scale doesn’t matter.
  3. History can be safely ignored since modern society has seen through the delusions of the past.
  4. Science is a unified, coherent field that explains the rational principles by which we can manage the physical world.

The next thing I need to remind you is that modernism is as much a religion as any other. In the not-too-distant past, whenever anyone raised questions about its basic tenets—directly or indirectly in one form or another—that person was quickly shushed. If the person persisted, he or she was then shamed. If shaming didn’t work, then that person was shunned or even unceremoniously ejected from the party.

Enter COVID-19.

The very first thing COVID-19 reminded us is that humans and nature are both in the same category, whatever you want to call it. (My favorite living French thinker Bruno Latour proposed the compound term “nature-culture” in his seminal book We Have Never Been Modern.)

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The ‘new normal’ has been postponed (and probably canceled)

The ‘new normal’ has been postponed (and probably canceled)

There remains a hope that once we get past the economic and social effects of the pandemic, all of us will be able to return to something resembling normal life before the pandemic—even if it is a “new normal” marked by heightened vigilance and protection against infectious disease and more work at home for office workers as companies realize they don’t need to maintain as much expensive office space.

But the date for this recovery to a new normal seems to keep getting postponed. The International Air Transport Association now projects a full recovery in international passenger traffic will take until 2024, a year later than the association projected back in April. The hotel industry will get a bit of a jump on the airline industry with a projected recovery by 2023The situation is so bad for restaurants that no one seems to be willing to project a date for anything that might be called a recovery.

Office building owners—who are suffering lower rent collections and lease cancellations—seem lucky in comparison with a recovery expected by the end of 2022.

Retailers of all kinds continue to suffer as closures abound throughout the United States. And, anyone who relies on commuter foot traffic for sales is hurting.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank just signaled that in the wake of such a sluggish economy it will keep short-term interest rates near zero until 2023. One commentator provided a list of hobbies that Fed board members could take up to fill their time between now and then.

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Do we have room for a billion Americans?

Do we have room for a billion Americans?

As I was reading Matthew Yglesias’ piece “The Case for Adding 672 Million More Americans,” the Soviet-era designation of Mother Heroine, initiated by Joseph Stalin in 1944, came to mind. Stalin and subsequent Soviet leaders gave Mother Heroine medals to mothers who bore and raised 10 or more children. Lesser honors were provided for mothers who bore and raised between five and nine children. There is some mention of additional financial assistance from the state to those with such large families, but I could not find much information on this.

For America’s version of Mother Heroines (and Heroes), Yglesias proposes “not just paid leave but financial assistance, preschool and after-care services, reasonable summer programming, and affordable college for all qualified student”—all in order to encourage larger families (which he claims Americans actually want).

Yglesias thinks we need to increase our population so that we will be able to compete with 1.4 billion Chinese. Whether you think competing with the Chinese is important or not, there is a problem with the hidden metaphor that Yglesias is using throughout his piece. He is imagining that the United States of America is like the family room in your home. Normally, you might have two or three members in the room at once, watching television, reading, or munching on snacks. But actually, you could fit 10 or maybe even 15 people in the room comfortably if you rearrange the furniture.

So, Yglesias thinks if we, so to speak, rearrange America’s furniture a bit—build more housing near major metropolitan areas, provide more assistance to families, encourage more legal immigration—we can reach 1 billion in population. “America should aspire to be the greatest nation on earth,” he tells us.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

 

North Dakota blues: The legacy of fracking

North Dakota blues: The legacy of fracking

When oil drillers descended on North Dakota en masse a decade ago, state officials and residents generally welcomed them with open arms. A new form of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” for short, would allow an estimated 3 to 4 billion barrels of so-called shale oil to be extracted from the Bakken Formation, some 2 miles below the surface.

The boom that ensued has now turned to bust as oil prices sagged in 2019 and then went into free fall with the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. The financial fragility of the industry had long been hidden by the willingness of investors to hand over money to drillers in hopes of getting in on the next big energy play. Months before the coronavirus appeared, one former oil CEO calculated that the shale oil and gas industry has destroyed 80 percent of the capital entrusted to it since 2008. Not long after that the capital markets were almost entirely closed to the industry as investor sentiment finally shifted in the wake of financial realities.

The collapse of oil demand in 2020 due to a huge contraction in the world economy associated with the pandemic has increased the pace of bankruptcies. Oil output has also collapsed as the number of new wells needed to keep total production from these short-lived wells from shrinking has declined dramatically as well. Operating rotary rigs in North Dakota plummeted from an average of 48 in August 2019 to just 11 this month.

Oil production in the state has dropped from an all-time high of 1.46 million barrels per day in October 2019 to 850,000 as of June, the latest month for which figures are available. Even one of the most ardent oil industry promoters of shale oil and gas development said earlier this year that North Dakota’s most productive days are over. CEO John Hess of the eponymous Hess Corporation is taking cash flow from his wells in North Dakota and investing it elsewhere.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Is the pandemic causing an exodus from big cities?

Is the pandemic causing an exodus from big cities?

Thomas Homer-Dixon, the Canadian student of complex systems and author of The Upside of Down, wrote in his 2006 book that “September 11 and Katrina won’t be the last time we walk out of our cities.”

Today, many big-city dwellers appear to be seeking refuge in less crowded towns and rural landscapes. The wealthy, at least, are seeking “bugout” homes away from major cities as places to ride out the pandemic, the economic downturn and the civil unrest that are gripping the world. Beyond news reports, I’ve heard from friends that homes are being snapped up in eastern Washington state and New York’s Hudson Valley by coastal city dwellers looking for a refuge in turbulent times.

It’s not just residents who are leaving. The New York Times reports that retail restaurant and merchandise chains are exiting Manhattan because it is “unsustainable.” New York City no longer teams with tourists, and its office towers are largely empty. That makes for empty streets with few customers for the city’s many retail establishments. This story is being repeated in other major cities including AtlantaChicagoDenverHoustonLos AngelesSeattle, and St. Louis.

In an op-ed appearing in The Globe and Mail, Homer-Dixon explained the underlying structural problems that have opened our global society to increasing risk:

The relatively new science of complex systems shows that such tipping events are made more likely by the unprecedented connectivity in the networks that humanity has laid down in a dense web across Earth’s surface – air traffic, financial, energy, manufacturing, food distribution, shipping and communication networks, to name just a few.

This science also shows that until we manage this connectivity better – which could mean, among other changes, reducing our international travel, simplifying global supply chains and bringing some production processes closer to home – we’re likely to experience more frequent tipping events of ever-higher destructive force.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Wireless charging: A colossal waste of energy

Wireless charging: A colossal waste of energy

It turns out the cellphone industry believes its customers just can’t be bothered with setting their phones in charging cradles or worse yet, actually plugging a charging cord into a phone. Users can now simply place a phone on top of a wireless charging pad to get their phones topped up.

For the privilege of being extra lazy these users of wireless charging expend up to 47 percent more energy to charge their phones, something that if widely adopted would require dozens of new power plants across the globe to accommodate.

Everything wireless seems like magic, and it is essentially sold as magic. It’s also sold as freedom, freedom from those pesky cords that limit where you can use your electronic devices. But the freedom is illusory. We are simply shackling ourselves ever more tightly to an addictive device that is contributing to an unsustainable fossil fueled way of life which is bound to crumble dramatically if we do not alter course.

That’s because, in addition to the wastefulness of wireless charging, wireless technologies require 10 times more energy than wired technology to transfer each unit of data and voice and do so at much slower rates than fiber optic cable. It’s no wonder then that wireless companies do NOT use wireless signals to transfer data and voice throughout their systems. Instead, they run fiber optic cables right up to the antennas that service your phone because those cables have much greater capacity and speed and much lower energy usage. (In the interests of keeping energy usage down, maybe we should consider returning to wired connections as much as possible. But that is a story for another time.)

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Evictions, tenants and the fragility of a “correlated” world

Evictions, tenants and the fragility of a “correlated” world

As eviction moratoriums around the United States come to an end, it is expected that landlords will begin evicting nonpaying tenants en masse. Eviction by itself is an unremarkable phenomenon in America. Some 900,000 per year have been occurring routinely in the last several years affecting about 2.3 million people annually.

The scale this time is different. No one knows exactly how things will play out in the United States (or elsewhere for that matter). But, barring new moratoriums on eviction one estimate suggests 23 million people will be subject to eviction by the end of September, more than 10 times the number for an entire year.

Where all those households would go is a puzzling question as the limited space in facilities for the homeless could never hold them. And, given the continuing coronavirus pandemic, those facilities that are observing proper social distancing have had to limit their capacity.

Perhaps the U.S. Congress will come to its senses and pass aid for renters just as it has done for businesses. I am doubtful about such prospects.

But, I am also interested in another important question: Who will replace evicted tenants? Here the problem of correlation looms large. Generally speaking, landlords don’t worry too much if Joe in apartment 238 and Sally in apartment 424 both lose their jobs. Their job losses are usually related to their specific circumstances, a company moving its operations or a firing due to poor performance. These losses are uncorrelated to the situations of other tenants. There will therefore be paying tenants to take the place of Joe and Sally should the landlord have to evict them.

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Cracks in the supply chain: Is metastable turning into unstable?

Cracks in the supply chain: Is metastable turning into unstable?

You who are reading this sentence are metastable systems. So, is the biosphere, and so is all of human society. A metastable system is one that remains stable so long as the inputs necessary to maintain its stability are available.

For humans this includes food (energy) and water. For the biosphere the key element is the energy input from the Sun. For human society, which is a subset of the biosphere, the Sun is also the key energy input. Much of the energy used by humans is stored in the form of wood, coal, natural gas and oil which all ultimately come from living organisms dependent on the Sun for energy.

Hydropower is also a product of the Sun which drives the water cycle on Earth and therefore allows hydroelectric dams to be filled. Wind and solar energy are, of course, products of the Sun as well. The energy harvested by humans gets expressed in manufacturing and transportation in machines. It gets expressed in human labor, but also in the thought, planning, and communications needed to make things happen.

What we are witnessing as a result of this pandemic is a widespread challenge to metastable systems upon which our societies depend. The most obvious are those related to hospitals and health care products. We often read in the news that hospitals are near “the breaking point” as if the hospital walls will burst when too many patients crowd into the building.

What this really means, of course, is that beyond certain levels of activity, the normal systems of a hospital will not function properly for want of people to provide services, for want of supplies needed to provide those services—tests for the COVID-19 virus come to mind—for want of space to examine all those seeking medical attention and for want of money to finance it all. 

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Our conversation with a coronavirus

Our conversation with a coronavirus

We have all been flummoxed by the way in which the coronavirus called COVID-19 has behaved as if it has agency in the world. We say it “moves,” “adapts,” “evades,” and “tricks us.” We attribute an intelligence to it. We marvel at its ability to manifest itself in so many ways. And everywhere we read COVID-19 is an enemyan invader, and a killer, one that uses stealth to spread itself. We must defeat itwipe it out, and eradicate it.

Many places on the internet we are implored to understand COVID-19 in order to stay safe—but only until such time as we vanquish this foe of humankind with a vaccine.

It occurs to very few people that we might be in a conversation with this coronavirus which is transmitting information to us by its actions and responding to our actions with its own reactions.

The rise of antibiotic resistance is another reminder that we are, in fact, in dialogue with the natural world. Everywhere—after centuries of practicing an ideology that claims we humans can control nature and with the right tools always and everywhere bend it to our will—we are being reminded that we are part of nature, that we are, in fact, organisms in an environment.

The modern environmental movement reintroduced the idea that we humans must align ourselves with the natural world or perish. But much of that movement is now focused on technical fixes such as electric cars designed to enable humans to live pretty much as they have been in the recent past.

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The financialization of the end of the world

The financialization of the end of the world

For those who are fans of cartoons from The New Yorker magazine and consistent readers of this blog, you might be able to guess my two favorite cartoons. In the first one, a man in a coat and tie stands at a podium and tells his unseen audience the following: “And so, while the end-of-the-world scenario will be rife with unimaginable horrors, we believe that the pre-end period will be filled with unprecedented opportunities for profit.”

In the second, a man in a tattered suit sits cross-legged near a campfire with three children listening to him intently as he says this: “Yes, the planet got destroyed. But for a beautiful moment in time we created a lot of value for shareholders.”

Now, in the you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up category, financial writer Paul Farrell used the caption from the first cartoon in a 2015 piece for MarketWatch entitled: “Your No. 1 end-of-the-world investing strategy.” The subheading is: “How to pick stocks for the near term when long-term trends say collapse is near.” The subhead actually seems like it might be another caption from a New Yorker cartoon (or possibly one from The Onion). Why exactly would you invest in stocks—as opposed to seeds of food crops and sturdy garden implements—”when long-term trends say collapse is near”? But I’ll put that down to bad headline writing.

In Farrell’s defense, he frequently used his column in MarketWatch to warn his readers of the coming collapse of modern civilization if we don’t change our ways. He was obliged to give investment advice, of course, because that’s what the column was for.

Few other investment gurus are as intellectually honest as Farrell. Among prominent investment managers, only Jeremy Grantham comes close to understanding the scope of the challenges we face. Grantham wrote a piece in 2013 called “The Race of Our Lives” that outlines the myriad challenges humans face. He starts with a discussion of the fall of civilizations. (He updated his views in 2018.)

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Insanity? Markets continue disconnect from economy and society

Insanity? Markets continue disconnect from economy and society

It’s hard to ignore the protests on the streets of the world’s cities of late. Those protests are coming from a populace who knows that the system they live under long ago stopped benefiting them. While the focus has been the senseless killing by police of an African-American man—all of which was caught on video—there are many other grievances: legalized financial theft by the one percent from the rest of us comes to mind, something that has resulted in growing and egregious inequality across the world.

It’s also hard to overestimate the hardship visited on the world’s people as many have been deprived of income and daily life by up to three months of pandemic-inspired stay-at-home orders and retail shutdowns. As I mentioned in my previous piece, the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta does a frequently updated estimate of U.S. GDP which as of this writing is minus 53.8 percent for the second quarter. (That’s annualized and seasonally adjusted.) The estimate for the current quarter started at minus 12.1 percent and has been dropping like a stone with each new piece of information. For comparison, U.S. GDP during the 2008-2009 financial crises shrank by only 4.2 percent.

And yet, the world’s stock markets are behaving as if the protests and the deprivation are inconsequential. After crashing in March in the wake of the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, major stock market indices are at or near all-time highs. For example, the S&P 500 Index was last around its Friday closing price on February 24, before the coronavirus pandemic market panic. How can this be explained?

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Insuring against catastrophe: The coronavirus predicament

Insuring against catastrophe: The coronavirus predicament

People insure themselves against many types of potential catastrophes: a house fire, a car accident, the untimely death of a spouse, a serious health problem. For other unexpected expenses, prudent people, as we say, save money “for a rainy day.” For some reason people and governments have chosen not to insure themselves (individually or collectively) against two catastrophes that have been much in the news lately: pandemics and large investment losses.

There is a connection, of course, for the two are tightly coupled. Here are some of the similarities between the two:

  1. Both occur at irregular and sometimes very long intervals.
  2. Both require careful thought and regular financial outlays to hedge against.
  3. Despite persistent warnings from experts, most people (and governments) did not act on such warnings.
  4. Now that the worst has occurred, many investment advisors and governments say, “No one could have seen it coming”—even when such a statement can be proven immediately false with easily obtained video evidence!

Will we learn from our current experience?

The answer in some cases will certainly be no because the incentives in our system encourage those in high places to act imprudently. Executives of publicly traded companies have spent trillions of dollars buying back shares of their own companies in order to goose stock prices and make their stock options more valuable—without regard for the need for cash reserves to make it through a recession.

One case that’s making the news is that of the U.S. airline industry. In the past five years the industry as a whole spent $45 billion on stock buybacks in order to enrich top management and shareholders. Now, the industry is asking for $50 billion from taxpayers to bail out profligate managers and their companies. Wouldn’t it be nice if they were asking for only $5 billion instead?

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Olduvai IV: Courage
In progress...

Olduvai II: Exodus
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